But Can Stockton, California AFFORD The Ceviche?
November 10, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Life for the majority of Stockton residents is far removed from the depressingly antiseptic clean, fun Californian image that the state’s Office of Tourism seeks to promote through TV ads featuring no-talent, do-nothing “elites” world-renowned celebrities.
The city’s longstanding problem with violent crime has earned it a top 10 ranking when it comes to America’s most dangerous cities. In 2012, it filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, and it was not until February of last year that it officially began to “emerge” from bankruptcy. The resulting cuts in police pay and benefits shrunk the number of Stockton cops by 25 percent, which correlated with a notable increase in violent and property crime. It follows that prudent minds would agree that Stockton’s crime-fighting resources should be used wisely.
And then there’s the case of Mariza Ruelas, who is facing time in jail following a coordinated, undercover operation by San Joaquin county investigators that exposed her for the dangerous ruffian that she is:
A single mother could face three years in jail in California for selling homemade ceviche and chicken stuffed fried avocado on Facebook after law enforcement conducted an undercover operation and accused her of running a food business without a permit.
The misdemeanor charges of “operating a food facility without a valid permit” and “engaging in business without a permit to sell” have drawn widespread criticisms of California police and health inspectors and raise fresh questions about how law enforcement agencies use social media for surveillance.
In December, someone who contacted her through the group asking for ceviche turned out to be an undercover San Joaquin county investigator who conducted a “sting” on behalf of the district attorney’s office.
That’s right, folks. While waves of violent crime plague the streets of Stockton, undercover investigators took the time and taxpayer dime to “catch” Ruelas selling ceviche — that Peruvian seafood delight that makes even the most strident carnivores buckle at the knees — through Facebook without a valid permit. One has to wonder how that investigator was able to effectively communicate with Ruelas online while his nose was so deep in the rulebook.
For the sake of this post, let’s agree that selling toothsome aliments (Ruelas was also selling delectable chicken stuffed fried avocadoes) without a valid permit can pose a risk to consumers, no matter how infinitesimal. It’s just that reasonable people have a beef with finite law enforcement resources being wasted on people like Ruelas when there are much more serious problems that the city of Stockton has yet to deal with.
Plus, the practice of going after minnows like Ruelas has another undesirable side effect: both Ruelas and her victims customers are treated like backward children, in that they are deemed incapable of making a basic exchange of goods for money outside the watchful eye of the government. Basic concepts like free market exchange and word of mouth are more effective than iron law in administering the rewards and punishments amongst Ruelas and her prey patrons. Ruelas sold a subpar ceviche with no cilantro? Disgruntled consumers can take to the internets to voice their complaints, and that should be that.
So in a scenario like Ruelas’, the state’s coffers are drained from all sides, sacrificed in the altar of law and order petty and capricious law enforcement. It’s the anathema of free market and laissez-faire (French for “let (it/them) do”) when small private transactions like these are scrutinized, prosecuted, and punished by the state. Each step involves the spending of constituent loot, and it dilutes people’s trust and confidence in the “system.” Should Ruelas end up doing time in California’s prison system, it will cost money to warehouse her, notwithstanding any reforms that have reduced the prison population.
While the DA, who is also on a bankrupt city’s very limited payroll, spearheads investigations like these, his limited attention is diverted from dangerous property and violent offenders that have the means to cause serious harm to Stockton’s residents. It’s similar to when the feds go after someone for possessing a pittance of pot when there are bigger birds to snare on the federal side.
The DA offered Ruelas a deal that would give her a chance to admit guilt, repent, and to be set forth on a path to rehabilitation: a guilty plea to the misdemeanor count, to be followed by a sentence of 80 hours of community service. In response, Ruelas dug her heels, refused to be deemed a misdemeanant, and awaits a trial by a jury of her peers.
After Ruelas contacted the media and tripled down (see below) on the DA’s charging decision, the DA came to his senses and quietly entered a dismissal on her case. Joking, actually: following her arraignment, Ruelas sought to fund her defense by selling some more of her homemade meals on Facebook, which resulted in three more counts and exposure to years in prison:
San Joaquin County deputy district attorney Kelly McDaniel told the Guardian that Ruelas used the page to sell food after her initial arraignment, resulting in a total of four counts that add up to a maximum of three years and a possible fine of more than $10,000.
Ruelas said she sold her signature chicken stuffed fried avocado dish to try and raise money for her legal costs.
“This was an issue about health and safety,” McDaniel said. “We’re not going to wait until someone dies or gets ill from someone’s food to charge them.”
McDaniel said the government sent the 209 Food Spot group a warning, but Ruelas said she never received any notice until she was charged.
According to the clerk of courts for the Superior Court of San Joaquin, the DA filed a “motion to amend the complaint,” which likely includes the 3 additional counts. Putting aside the discussion whether Ruelas’ post-arraignment conduct was the stuff of a true culinary revolutionary or of a hopelessly naïve defendant, the fact remains that the DA called Ruelas’ chicken stuffed fried avocado and raised her 3 more counts. Stuff can get pretty real pretty quickly in the trenches, and Ruelas’ case is an example. It’s possible that Ruelas may have to fight to the end before a jury if she wants to stay out of the can.